Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Bollinger and Ahmadinejad: Ad Hominem

I feel a need to respond to a few of the comments in my last post in addition to some aspects of Lee Bollinger's speech itself. What I dislike most about all sides of the issue is the overuse of ad hominem attacks.

It does not do any good, I think, to call Bollinger ignorant or a pawn of the media or whatever for his remarks yesterday. I think there are much better ways to go about discussing this issue. I do not moderate the comments made on my blog and I hope that I never have to do so, but I do ask that they evaluate the substance (or lack thereof) of what someone says and does rather than take the next step and disparage the person making those remarks (there are other places and times for such disparagements). I prefer open discussion, but resorting to ad hominem attacks usually has the effect of squelching discussion rather than promoting an exchange of ideas or information.

The question, however, is whether or not, in this case, Bollinger opens himself up for ad hominem attacks by doing the very same to Ahmadinejad? Firstly, I should state that the actual questions posed by Bollinger and the students at the forum were entirely fair given the information known from what Ahmadinejad himself has said and done in the past few years and rather recently and by the reports of international agencies. All world leaders should have to answer such difficult questions based upon their past statements and courses of action. On the other hand, the statements Bollinger made (basically to cover himself from the heat he has been receiving for inviting Ahmadinejad to begin with) were out of place in academic discourse (I'm not saying that ad hominem attacks do not occur in academic discussions, but that there is the ideal that they shouldn't). And so calling A. a "petty and cruel dictator," "ridiculous" (as my mom, who is not at all a fan of A. noted, this particular word seemed out of place in an academic setting), and, what I thought was most damning, saying that A. lacked the intellectual courage to answer the questions posed by B., all seemed out of place. By the way, B. was for the most part (although not completely) proven right on this last point, but it is not something people tend to say explicitly and not something you say before it happens (going to Jodi's point about preempting the speech). (The recent post on Kishkushim has a different perspective on this.) B.'s questions, I thought, seemed appropriate for critical engagement with very important international issues and concerns. His personal attacks created an atmosphere in which actual discussion became virtually impossible. On his side, I do not think that A., in his actual speech at least, really substatively engaged any of the current issues. His speech sounded like a sermon with the interwoven themes of light and darkness, science (practiced by those who are pure--I am not sure what that actually means), and God. It, too, seemed out of place, and it gave me the impression that A.'s speech was not really directed to those in the room or on the campus (but I doubt there are many people who thought it was). I do hope to have a full transcript of A.'s speech and the Q & A period afterwards so everyone can evaluate and dissect it themselves.

As for the protesters outside the campus and on the campus itself, I think that is a different issue and follows a different genealogy of discourse in which ad hominem attacks are not only allowed, but are actually the norm (although, again, I do not think I have ever seen two sides of a protest rally actually convince the other side or even desire open discussion at least in that particular setting--but, again, that is not really the point of a protest, is it?). Although the vehemence of some of the groups seemed, ultimately, counterproductive. It was a carnivalesque atmosphere (there were even bagpipes!).

Some may object to this post, saying that A. is a political figure with the reins of power in his hands, and so, as with all public political figures, he is fair game for such personal attacks (just as someone like Bush is), but, once again, I think that such language is out of place in the World Leaders Forum, in an academic environment, and, I hope, on this blog.


James said...

I haven't had a chance to look at the comments on the previous post, but Columbia sure has been getting a lot of attention for this (don't worry, in India, no one cares or knows about these little controversies). Insulting an invited speaker before his speech seems like bad form to me. I think it's particularly bad form because other dubious leaders have spoken with glowing introductions from Bollinger. Musharaf, the so-called president of Pakistan, got words of praise from Bollinger and a standing ovation from the power-worshiping Columbia crowd. And he really is a dictator. Ahmedinejad may be awful in a whole variety of ways, but he is not a dictator. The President of Iran simply doesn't have all that much power. Bollinger didn't even bring up Musharaff's statements from the week previous when he told the Washingon Post (I think) that the easiest way to get a visa to the West was to get yourself raped and to make a big deal out of it. It seems to be OK to be petty and cruel as long as you're a US ally.

Anonymous said...

I have yet to post my own thoughts on the duel, but I think I agree with everything you said here. Though I thought Bollinger's questions were fine, I thought he was a jerk and embarrassment to the university, and completely undercut the reason for having dialogs like the ones SIPA organizes. And now any such person invited to speak at Columbia will have to seriously look at Ahmedinejad's treatment by Bollinger and ask whether it's really worth coming.